Downturn Cuts Exercise

It turns out that death rates fall during recessions. I posted in January on how some had speculated that people eat better during recessions, but in fact people seem to eat worse food. Now I can report that people also get less exercise during recessions:

Recreational exercise tends to increase as employment decreases. In addition, we also find that individuals substitute into television watching, sleeping, childcare, and housework. However, this increase in exercise as well as other activities does not compensate for the decrease in work-related exertion due to job-loss. Thus total physical exertion, which prior studies have not analyzed, declines. These behavioral effects are strongest among low-educated males. (more)

The healthy-recession puzzle deepens.

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  • Matt

    Having read only the abstract, I imagine this as being consistent with:

    1. Laid off office workers get more exercise on balance, become healthier.

    2. Laid off mining and construction workers get much less exercise on balance (because pre-recession they did a lot of job-related physical activity), become more likely to die of heart disease in 20 years, but become less likely to die in mining accidents.

    Both effects marginally reduce death rates, but 2 is more powerful than 1 in determining total physical activity because miners and construction workers had a lot more physical activity pre-recession, and a much bigger drop, than office workers.

    • I don’t think that on-the-job deaths (that is, job-caused deaths which occur within the time-scales of a recession rather than chronic lifetime) make up a large enough fraction of deaths to explain this. On-the-job deaths are rare, and I think it makes a lot more sense to look at how the recession effects risk factors for the much more likely causes of death: heart disease, cancer, etc.

    • Roy

      Mining has actually increased during the downturn, it is one of the few economic bright spots, but I think the number of people employed in mining is a very small proportion of workforce.

  • Chris Pine

    Do people out of work drive less? (They certainly commute less.) Perhaps less-time-on-the-road means less-dying.

  • Evan

    other than diet and exercise what other factors greatly contribute to death rates?
    i would think stress would be a good indicator. however i’m not sure if job-related stress would be considerably more than stress caused from worrying about unemployment/money/etc. perhaps during a recession unemployed people are able to rationalize there joblessness easier and therefore be less stressed? i’m reaching here, but i have no other hypotheses

  • Scott

    Sleep and maintenance e.g. housework are good for you. (Moderate) exercise is good for you. Work – activity *not* intense enough to disrupt homeostasis, unlike exercise – is bad for you.

    What puzzle?

  • Albert Ling

    I think it all boils down to sleep. People who work and sleep 6 hours don’t know what they are missing if they just slept until they woke up without an alarm clock every day, which means 8+ hours for most people.

  • At least part of this has to be at least partially related to the fall in vehicles-miles driven.

  • loveactuary

    Robin – do you have a citation or link showing the evidence behind your opening statement that death rates falling during recessions? I read your current link, and tried to trace back to your other posts but couldn’t find this

  • Ian

    Recreational exercise has a much larger impact on your health than work-related exertion?

  • Do death rates change more in recessions for low-educated males? Or the unemployed?

  • Phil Maymin

    Perhaps average health drops but those at the tails in extremely poor health and especially poor are so much more useful to their family that they hang on longer.

  • People who are laid off are likely to try and use up their remaining medical benefits before they expire. That pulse of medical care as people become unemployed may be enough to drop death rates for the duration of short recession.

    It may not be the type of food, but the quantity. Calorie deprivation is perhaps the surest way to extend lifespan.

  • Anonymous

    Do we know how suicide rates are affected?

  • Maybe job-related stress is worse than the stress of being unemployed?

    • magicdufflepud

      This is what I wondered, too.

  • Lower incomes translate into less tobacco, less alcohol, less harder drugs.

    If this is the mechanism, then higher taxes would be expected to save lives too. 😉

  • John Maxwell

    It seems like both injuries and infectious disease would go down if people stay home from work.

  • Psychohistorian

    Type of exercise may matter significantly. Exercise one gets at work is designed to optimize getting one’s job done – health is in no way a goal. Recreational exercise is often directly aligned with health and may be less based around pure repetition of unergonomic movements – like repeatedly picking up and moving boxes or the like. I’d think breaking down the numbers by profession might provide some insight into this.

  • Work kills.

  • PTH

    How much does sleep correlate with death rates?

  • Well, at least there sounds like there is one positive in all of this mess.

  • Paul Tiffany

    While I was going to UVa and working a graveyard shift, I lived for about a year on frozen burritos and expired hot pockets. This did not greatly increase my chance of dying in the short-run, during this recession, but may affect my life expectancy (although I am confident in the future progress of longevity science).
    Some things mentioned above are significant: miles driven, work related and other accidental deaths, less disease (decreased travel and leisure).
    I’m interested how growth in life expectancy fluctuates during recession.

  • David O

    Unemployment/underemployment => more sleep, less stress perhaps (and less stress hormones).

    Though obviously the first part of figuring out recession mortality is decomposing the mortality changes into those experienced by the newly unemployed and those who still have jobs but are working fewer hours.